Russell Hausfeld contributed to the reporting of this story.

This is Part 2 of Psymposia’s investigation into the Church of Psilomethoxin. Part 1 can be found here.

In a livestream with Zeus Tipado on April 25, Church of Psilomethoxin co-founder Benjamin Moore announced that the Church is reverting back to its original name, “The Church of the Sacred Synthesis.” In response, Tipado enthusiastically suggested that such a change could prevent much of the pushback CoP has recently encountered, and offered a colorful analogy. “Let’s say for example, I create the Church of Canned Peas, you know? And I’m giving people peas and canned peas and then all of a sudden somebody’s like, ‘These aren’t peas, it’s…creamed corn!’ You know, then it’s like, ‘I was under the impression that I was getting…peas, but it’s actually corn!’…If the church was called Church of Food, then it doesn’t matter what you get, corn or peas. You get whatever!”

Tipado went on to say, “Regardless…if it has psilomethoxin or if it doesn’t have psilomethoxin…I think just taking that out would just better the whole perception of the Church when people hear about it. So I’m very happy that you guys are going through that change…I think that’s going to help the entire image of the church, just that simple change.”

While changes to CoP’s website and social media pages indicate that the Church is currently exploring a “Church of Food” approach, there are still many unresolved issues and questions with regards to its claims about its sacrament: peas psilomethoxin (a name the Church trademarked in 2022).

In numerous interviews with CoP founders, as well as on its website, Church leadership references comments made in 2005 by the renowned psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin (whom CoP considers to be the “Church’s godfather and prophet”), regarding the possibility of a mycological biosynthesis of psilomethoxin. In the “Ask Dr. Shulgin Online” section of his website, Shulgin replies to an inquiry about why 4-HO-5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (psilomethoxin) wasn’t included in his book, TiHKAL, stating:

4-Hydroxy-5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine would be a fascinating compound to explore. The reason it’s not in TiKHAL is that it is virtually unknown. The only report of it in the chemical literature was a paper published by Marc Julia’s group at the Pasteur Institute in 1965….The synthesis is quite a frightening thing….I’m not surprised that no one has pursued the compound.

However there is a very interesting study that took place in Leipzig about 15 years ago. Jochen Gartz, a mushroom explorer whom I know quite well, has done some fascinating studies with Psilocybe species by raising them on solid media containing strange tryptamines that are alien to the mushroom. Apparently the enzymes that are responsible for the 4-hydroxy group of psilocin are indifferent to what it is they choose to 4-hydroxylate….I’ll give you even odds that if you put spores of a psilocybe species on cow droppings loaded with 5-MeO-DMT you would come out with mushrooms containing 4,5-HO-MeO-DMT. This way you avoid a 10 step synthesis by growing a psychoactive mushroom that contains no illegal drug.

While Church leadership has repeatedly referenced Shulgin’s speculation as though it were established fact, it should be clear that Shulgin’s speculation is just that — speculation. Yes, it’s based on Gartz’s published work, but Gartz didn’t publish about biosynthesizing psilomethoxin.

A video from CoP's Instagram page that says the Church used the "Shulgin recipe" to produce psilomethoxin and "it seems to have worked."

CoP explanations of the biosynthesis appear a bit muddled. In some interviews CoP leaders claim the process involves adding 5-MeO-DMT freebase to the mushroom substrate, while in other interviews they claim it entails 5-MeO-DMT salts. Meanwhile, in a Facebook post, Church co-founder Ian Benouis claims “all the cows that have eaten 5-meo-dmt containing phalaris grass making manure when inoculated with psilocybin spores have naturally been making psilomethoxin for thousands of years…” The Church has not made its biosynthesis method available for public scrutiny or peer-review. 

Regarding production of the Church’s sacramental psilomethoxin, Lake told Psymposia it is made in a “production facility in Canada. People that we, you know, have a very close relationship with — or members of our church, who do it in Canada.”

Asked whether those producers confirmed the presence of psilomethoxin, Lake responded, “No, absolutely not. I mean, we all know there’s no reference sample, right? So, it’s like, you know, in our view, they couldn’t tell us one way or the other.”

When CoP was asked on its Instagram page why it hadn’t “submitted a paper for publication in a scientific journal,” the Church replied, “We are a religious organization. Not a medical or scientific one. Submitting papers to scientific journals is outside the scope of our purpose.”

The psilomethoxin assertions aren’t the only questionable claims made by CoP leadership regarding mycological biosyntheses. In a recent podcast with Martin Ball — a longtime 5-MeO-DMT practitioner who has admitted to vomiting on clients and engaging in other harmful practices — Benouis claims to “have a friend…in Oregon [who] fed THC, delta-9 THC to mushrooms and they 4-hydroxylated it.” Benouis fails to provide any supporting evidence for this claim, instead using it as a jumping off point for his belief that the “mushrooms can do the heavy lifting” of synthesizing psilomethoxin. In his conversation with Tipado, CoP co-founder Benjamin Moore repeats this 4-hydroxylated THC claim, again without evidence.

CoP’s “Scientific Response” to the Williamson and Sherwood preprint — a recent manuscript detailing chemical analysis which failed to detect any psilomethoxin in a sample of the Church’s sacrament — was written by its “Director of Sacred Science/Sacred Synthesis,” Adam McKay. McKay’s bio refers to him as a “chemist and physicist” with a BS in Chemistry and Physics, as well as a minor in Mathematics. It also claims he has worked as an analytical chemist for a dietary supplement manufacturer and two pharmaceutical companies. According to his LinkedIn, McKay’s longest period of employment was as “Manager and Head Tutor” for a company called “Integral Tutoring” for about eight years.

Psymposia contacted McKay to confirm his credentials and professional experience. McKay declined to provide verification, instead directing Psymposia to re-read his LinkedIn, disregard his tutoring “side business,” and contact Stony Brook University. Psymposia was unable to verify McKay’s claims of being a physicist.

While reporting this story and reviewing publicly available information about McKay online, Psymposia watched a video titled “Psilomethoxin Deep Dive with Chemist Adam Mckay.” In the video, Mckay attempts to unpack the biosynthesis of psilocin, explaining, “the fungi has all these enzymes that make [psilocin] by a bunch of procedures.” He then launches into a similarly vague explanation of how mushrooms (which he repeatedly refers to as “the plant”) make psilomethoxin. How likely is it that McKay will succeed in synthesizing a reference standard of psilomethoxin — a procedure Shulgin called “a frightening thing?” Only time will tell.  

In CoP’s “Scientific Response” McKay refers to Williamson and Sherwood’s paper as “Williamson and Heldreth’s paper,” seeming to confuse social media commentary from the CEO of Panacea Plant Sciences, David Heldreth, with the preprint written by the Usona researchers. McKay then claims the paper “appears to be put forth by two individuals associated with a for profit organization.” Usona Institute, the organization that employs Williamson and Sherwood, is a non-profit medical research organization. 

Rather than offering scientific analysis, McKay goes on to claim that the “chain of custody” of the sample of the alleged psilomethoxin is at issue, stating that “There is no evidence to support that it is authentic sacrament, stored and transported properly, and unadulterated.” Psymposia asked McKay what the proper storage and transportation protocols would entail, but McKay declined to comment. 

Psymposia is aware of three analyses performed on the Church’s sacrament — in addition to the multiple analyses the Church claims to have run — all of which have failed to find psilomethoxin. While CoP has raised “chain of custody” objections to the sample an anonymous Church member (whose identity Psymposia has independently verified) provided to the Usona researchers, it is unclear why it has not submitted its own sample for HPLC or UPLC analysis.

In light of McKay telling Psymposia, “I will not be commenting anything [sic] for 4 months [sic] time,” Psymposia turned to noted psychedelic chemist David Nichols for his thoughts about the Church’s statements regarding chemical analysis of its sacrament. Nichols told Psymposia that “The church has a completely nonsensical and nonscientific position.”

In response to the Church’s assertion that “No one can claim, at this juncture, positive identification of Psilomethoxin until a reference sample for comparison is obtained,” Nichols told Psymposia:

“If a reference standard was necessary to identify a new natural product, no new natural products would ever have been identified. That is simple logic that anyone can understand. You don’t need an already synthesized standard molecule before you can identify the presence of that molecule for the very first time in a natural product. Rather, the Williamson and Sherwood paper uses proper analytical methodology to show that there is nothing in their ‘psilomethoxin’ sample with the properties of the claimed compound.”

Rather than identifying specific methodological failings of the Williamson and Sherwood paper in the “Methodology” section of CoP’s response, McKay mostly opts to speak in generalizations, stating, “Chromatography is highly sensitive to solvent mixture ratios and pH yielding variable results even on the same instrument run consecutively without significant controls and safeguards in place.”  McKay continues, “In a credible analysis the method used needs to be validated and robust. With chromatography in particular, this entails such steps as repeated injections of the standard to indicate the instrument’s reliable functioning, blank measurements for background noise, and threshold of detection measurements.”

Contrasting sharply with McKay’s objections, Nichols told Psymposia that “Organic compounds can be identified by specific analytical methods such as high-resolution mass spectrometry (UPLC-HRMS), which will give the exact molecular weight of a compound out to four decimal places, allowing one to calculate the molecular formula of the compound. Ultra performance liquid chromatography was used to identify how many tryptamines were present in their standard sample. [Williamson and Sherwood] easily identified psilocybin, psilocin, and baeocystin. However, the exact molecular weight of psilomethoxin is 235.1441 and there was no additional HPLC peak corresponding to that exact molecular weight.”

A figure from the Williamson and Sherwood preprint, captioned “(Top) Selected ion chromatograms for tryptamine test mix. (Bottom) Selected ion chromatograms for Church of Psilomethoxin sample…” indicating the presence of psilocybin and psilocin, but not psilomethoxin, in a sample of CoP sacrament

It appears that CoP believes its psilomethoxin somehow remains elusive to most forms of scientific drug testing. Whether in response to GC-MS, HPLC, or UPLC testing, the Church has found reasons to cast doubt on the results, while simultaneously asserting the reliability of bioassays (eating the mushrooms and reporting the subjective experiential effects). 

In the case of Williamson and Sherwood’s analysis, McKay ultimately appeals to his own authority, contending, “As a chromatography specialist for small molecule drugs of [sic] almost a decade in FDA [Food and Drug Administration] regulated labs these findings would never stand as reported here due to the lack of the 3 aforementioned control steps alone.”

Given that the Usona chemists in question were not seeking to manufacture drugs for human consumption, citing FDA procedures seems to be a distraction from the actual question of whether or not Williamson and Sherwood’s analytical methodology was sound. Psymposia asked McKay why he chose to reference the FDA in CoP’s response, but he declined to comment.

Nichols told Psymposia that “It is reasonable to assume, based on the HPLC retention times of the standard tryptamine mixture that the authors examined, that psilomethoxin would have appeared at some point prior to the 4.5 minute total elution time of the sample. There is definitely no psilomethoxin in the sample analyzed by Williamson and Sherwood.”

Perhaps the most glaring issue with CoP’s entire “Scientific Response” is the fact that the Church and its leadership have claimed on its website that its sacramental “fruiting bodies contain only Psilomethoxin (a non-scheduled substance) and not psilocybin and psilocin.”

Church leadership has reiterated this point on numerous podcasts, or failed to correct podcast hosts who have made this point to them. So even if we were to accept all of McKay’s objections to Williamson and Sherwood’s analysis, the presence of psilocybin and psilocin in the Church mushrooms that were analyzed is adequate to debunk CoP’s claims about its sacrament. And, of course, there’s the fact that the Church has now made the argument that it never claimed to have positively identified psilomethoxin in its sacrament in the first place.

Why, exactly, is CoP leadership comfortable taking the position that they never identified psilomethoxin in their sacramental psilomethoxin? Apparently, it comes down to faith, a core component of most religions. In the United States, many religions and faith-based practices have rich histories, interwoven with attempts to avoid persecution, and the Church claims it’s no different. Who, you might ask, is persecuting CoP? According to the Church, it has become a victim of “psychedelic capitalism.” Parts 3 and 4 of this series will examine some of the Church’s claims about its faith, its persecution, and its understanding of psychedelic capitalism.

There are many arenas in which appealing to faith is perfectly acceptable. However, with regards to the intersection of faith and chemistry, Nichols told Psymposia, “Subjective experiences or faith by the church members is not acceptable as an analysis method.”

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